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The ‘Availability’ Of Aptitude

In 1873, Edward Clark, a Harvard physician, suggested that young women who engaged in “heavy mental activity” would wreck their reproductive system. “The results are monstrous brains and puny bodies… . The brain cannot take more than its share without injury to other organs.”

What calls this to mind just now, obviously, is the flap over recent comments by Larry Summers, president of Harvard University, regarding women and science. The subject was the underrepresentation of women in tenured positions in science and engineering in America’s top universities. According to the transcript of his comments, Summers offered three tentative hypotheses to explain the phenomenon, of which one was “different availability of aptitude at the high end,” a formulation suggesting that although women might be competent to be average professors of science or research engineers, most lack the aptitude to be among the best in those professions. That suggestion, in itself sufficient to set off a firestorm of controversy, lifted the lid on a growing number of simmering resentments that have marked Summers’s presidency.

Summers himself put his provocative comments within a provocative context. “It is, after all,” he said, “not the case that the role of women in science is the only example of a group that is significantly underrepresented in an important activity and whose under-representation contributes to a shortage of role models for others who are considering being in that group. To take a set of diverse examples, the data will, I am confident, reveal that Catholics are substantially underrepresented in investment banking…; that white men are very substantially underrepresented in the National Basketball Association, and that Jews are very substantially underrepresented in farming and in agriculture.”

Such examples can easily be multiplied, and are usually explained on the grounds of different patterns of socialization and by societal discrimination. To introduce “innate ability” as an explanation is to risk the angry reaction that Summers’s remarks in fact elicited. In the case of women, it is to recall a dismal history that extends in time and in tone well beyond Clark’s odd — and, yes, outrageous — assertion that women are, in effect, required to choose between brain and uterus.

Still, there is something puzzling here. Do we, or ought we, expect that in a perfectly integrated and egalitarian society, every significant group in the society — in Summers’s examples, white men, women, Catholics and Jews — will be represented in every sector of the economy in proportion to its numbers in the population? That is not a utopian vision; it is a nonsensical vision.

Plainly, the group is not an arbitrary construct. Groups have distinctive cultures, which means that their members have distinctive values, ambitions and expectations. Might it be that they also have distinctive abilities, whether genetically defined or culturally promoted, or both?

In 1967, two Harvard researchers, Susan Stodolsky and Gerald Lesser, published an extraordinary paper in which they reported that different ethnic groups — Chinese, Puerto Rican, Negro (the term in use back then) and Jewish — had distinctive patterns of learning, and that those patterns remained stable across class lines. While middle-class students did better than lower-class students, ethnic patterns remained constant.

Chinese students were weakest in verbal skills, strongest in spatial conceptualization; the pattern for Jewish students was exactly reversed. Is it, then, a surprise that there are proportionately more Chinese architects than the number of Chinese in the population would predict and more Jewish lawyers than the proportion of Jews in the population?

I stumbled onto the Stodolsky/Lesser data when I was doing a book on community control of the schools back in 1970, and I discussed the matter there in some detail and with considerable excitement. It buttressed my view of the importance of ethnic (and other) groups in the society. And it would certainly seem to indicate that women just might be less apt at the skills that science and engineering require, while allowing for the very real possibility that they have other skills, including academic skills, that would lead them to excel in other fields.

The only problem is that, as far as I am aware, the Stodolsky/Lesser results never have been replicated. The American society is remarkably fluid, the boundaries that separate groups are remarkably permeable, and the “patterns of learning” that in one suggestive study seemed to explain much of the difference we commonly observe are, in fact, highly variable, dependent far more on socialization and on educational opportunity than on “innate” ability.

Further evidence of the malleability of learning patterns and, presumably, of achievement patterns, as well, can be derived from Israel’s experience. Jews underrepresented in agriculture? Not in a society that honors farming. Jews underrepresented in the military? Not in a society that values military skills.

Once, while a close friend and I were sitting on the lush lawn of a kibbutz, we got to talking about our children and their prospects in life. Mine were college bound, and were going through the usual preadmission jitters. His were being considered for service in a highly specialized army unit — or, as he put it, with pride and with irony, for acceptance into “the Harvard of war making.” And just the other day, he told me how puzzled his granddaughter’s friends were when she rejected the Israeli military’s invitation to become a jet fighter pilot.

Which is why Larry Summers was almost surely wrong to propose as an explanation for the dearth of tenured women in science and engineering in the top schools an innate difference in “aptitude at the high end,” as wrong as Edward Clark was about women and “heavy mental activity” in 1873.

Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights).


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